The "beta" label: A testing ground for techies or a welcome mat for the mainstream?

Summary:On the heels of an update to Office 2010 Beta, a question about the use of the "beta" label surfaces again.

Has the "beta" label lost its meaning?

I took a beating from readers yesterday over a post I wrote about Microsoft's update to its Outlook Social Connector within the beta version of Office 2010. In releasing the update, Microsoft failed to note - or possibly just hid - that components of the old version had to be uninstalled before the upgrade could be installed. Since I didn't know that I had to do that, I ended up being locked out of Outlook until Microsoft updated its instructions with details of the uninstall/reinstall.

I shared my experience in a blog post and the readers were brutal, telling me in so many words that I was too technically incompetent to work with beta software. Fair enough. I'm no IT geek - so digging deep into settings. configurations and code is not my area of expertise. I can admit that. But with that said, I can't help but wonder if it's the "beta" label that's part of the disconnect here.

It's been five years - almost to the date - since ZDNet published a post about Google's extended use of the beta label on products such as Google News, GMail and Google Maps. At the time, Google co-founder Larry Page called the beta label a "messaging and branding thing," and said he had no problem leaving that tag on for years if that's how long the company planned to keep making changes.

Google has been criticized for its perpetual use of "beta" on its products - but I might argue that it also changed the perception of what beta means. Clearly, a product like GMail was being used by a mainstream audience while it still had the beta label on it - allowing the company to deflect blame for software bugs while allowing users to not only use the product but also to invite their friends, as well. That tells me - and others - that the beta label wasn't so much a "hands-off" for regular users but rather a "don't get mad at us" asterisk.

So it is any surprise that a guy like me - an early adopter who's not necessarily IT-geeky - would install a piece of beta software? Even my colleague Ed Bott, who I have much respect for, ran into similar installation issues yesterday and recognized that Microsoft could have done a better job at explaining the uninstall/reinstall requirements. I have no beef with Microsoft requiring an uninstall before an upgrade install - just be clear about what's required. Is that too much to ask?

For what it's worth, I haven't had any problems with the beta software itself since I installed it correctly, so maybe I'm not as stupid and incompetent as many of you might think. Yesterday's issue was with Microsoft's instructions for installing the software.

If you still want to bash me over this, I would ask that you join the others on yesterday's post and fire away, On this post, I'd love to hear your thoughts about the use of the "beta" label and whether Google - or any other company for that matter - has diluted the significance of it.

Topics: Microsoft, Google

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